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Scott McMurren: The best travel website? Sorry, there's no silver bullet

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 2, 2015

When I meet travelers at airports, restaurants or the grocery line, they often ask: "What's the best website to find good travel deals?"

Although it is a simple question, the answer is difficult. In fact, there is no one "silver bullet" website for the best travel deals. Because of the various distribution channels, bargains can -- and do -- pop up in unexpected places.

There are some websites that I check more than once each day. There are others that I check less frequently. Sometimes readers and other travelers alert me to great bargains. Here are some of my favorite sites:

1. The Flight Deal (theflightdeal.com): Hat tip to my friend James Minton for the heads-up on this site. Every day, these folks send out a bulletin for great fares. Not all of them apply to Alaska travelers. But sometimes there are great bargains from Seattle or Los Angeles. With this summer's deals up and down the West Coast, sometimes you can put together some great prices. Today, there is a deal from Portland to Chile for less than $800. Yesterday, these was a bargain rate from Los Angeles to Fiji for $786.

I like The Flight Deal because they offer specifics on which carrier, which class of service, which dates and then provide guidance on how to search for the fare using Google's ITA site or another site if it's not available on ITA.

2. Google's ITA site (matrix.itasoftware.com): This is my go-to site for flight search and fare research. You can search various travel dates for up to a month and the results include rich details on fare basis, routing, carriers and connecting points. I think it's the best "pro-sumer" flight search tool available. Since you cannot buy tickets at this site, there's no pressure to buy anything. Lately, though, it appears that Google has dumbed-down ITA's site in favor of its new site (below).

3. Google Flights (google.com/flights): I love this site. There's an interactive map and there are charts and suggestions and tips. But the site is not as comprehensive as the ITA site. But here's the trick: There are links to buy tickets from the results they find, which is not an option at the ITA site.

That would not be a problem except that Google Flights misses some of the best rates. It's not that the site is trying to trick you into spending more money -- it's just that rates change quickly and the least-expensive fares often drop off their radar. Sometimes that's because there may be a fare available but no available seats on the dates you're searching. Or, the flight may be available only on an airline that is not included in the fare displays (like Southwest Airlines). So, if I find a good deal on Google Flights, I double-check on the airline's own website.

4. I have lots of friends who love Kayak.com. I'm not a big fan, but I do like the map they offer. You can sort by price or airline and get a pretty good idea of some of the best fares available. Unfortunately, some of Kayak.com's results include "fake" fares. For example, right now there is a $200 round-trip fare to Minneapolis from Anchorage. Unfortunately, the actual fare construction reveals it is a fare from Anchorage to Seattle, via Minneapolis. This is valuable information if you want to use a "hidden city" strategy on a one-way fare. But it's not helpful for folks who want to visit the Twin Cities for more than a few hours. The actual fare to Minneapolis, by the way, is closer to $520 round trip -- more than twice as much as the initial "fare." So here's the lesson: If you see a great fare on Kayak.com, double-check with the airline's own website.

5. Travelzoo (travelzoo.com): I get the emails, but never have found that many great deals. Other friends of mine have traveled several times with deals from Travelzoo, which caused me to take a closer look. Recently, Phil Stutzman with iCruise.com called me to tell me about a nine-night hotel/cruise package in Hawaii for $1,200. He put the deal on Travelzoo. This includes a seven-night cruise and a two-night hotel package in Waikiki. The best prices are Aug. 6 and 27; Nov. 12; March 31, 2016; and Nov. 24, 2016. But many other dates are available.

6. Priceline (priceline.com): These days, Priceline is much more than the name-your-own-price juggernaut. They own several other brands, including hotel booking sites like booking.com. Recently, Priceline started offering Alaska cruises in July for as little as $349 per person. The cruise starts in Seward and sails to Hoonah, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan before calling in Vancouver, B.C. The price does not include return airfare from Vancouver. The first sailing is July 13, but other sailings are available in July, August and September between $399-$499 per person, double.

7. Johnny Jet (johnnyjet.com): Johnny is one of the best aggregators in the business. He pulls together deals on cruises, on hotels and on airfares. Just today, he had some great deals on airfares between Australia and Los Angeles for less than $500 round trip.

8. Secret Flying (secretflying.com/usa-deals): I love sites that dig up obscure fares. I've found some great rates here, including Los Angeles to Scandinavia for $345 round trip.

In addition to airfare sites, there are sites devoted to accruing frequent-flier points, including TravelHacking.org. That's almost a "shadow economy," but those points come in handy when the fares are high.

As usual, these deals change all the time. If you're looking for good airfare deals this summer, check the airlines' websites (Delta, Alaska and JetBlue), as they are fighting with one another -- and that means lower fares. Cheap destinations from Anchorage and Fairbanks include Boston, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty-destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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